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The art of writing realistic dialogue

Dialogue is a critical element of characterisation. No matter how much research I do beforehand when creating characters for my novels they don’t come alive until I start to put dialogue into their mouths and they begin to interact with other characters.

Many beginner writers find it difficult to write realistic and believable dialogue. This is usually because they are not in the minds of the characters they have created.

Dialogue is there to give life to your characters but a couple of words of caution.

Use dialect sparingly. Dialect can convey your character and give local colour to your story, novel or passage but too much is very wearing on the reader.

Likewise swearing. Many readers tell me that they dislike excessive swearing in novels, a view I personally share. In particular, those who listen to audio books tell me this is very off putting. I often feel that a good film or television programme is ruined by overuse of foul language, often completely unnecessary, in fact it’s a lazy way to convey an emotion. Yes, many people now swear as part of everyday language but that doesn’t mean to say it should be replicated in your dialogue, at least not all the time. In addition, swearing needs to be in keeping with the character and the situation. Just beware of over doing it.

Writing believable dialogue in fiction is a long way from dialogue in 'real life' which is peppered with a chaos of ums and ahs, you knows, basicallys and many more superfluous words and fillers. If used in a novel, or short story, these fillers will only serve to slow the flow and frustrate the reader. So be ruthless, cut them out.

Dialogue helps to move the plot forward and impart necessary information. It helps to break up the narrative and improves the look on the page. It can also add speed, depth and emotion to a passage but it must be there for a purpose- i.e. to create and develop the scene. Examine your passages of narrative and ask can this be told in dialogue?

There are alternatives to ‘said’ that can also convey action, your character’s feelings and their personality and emotions – for example, snapped, sniped, chanted, mused, exclaimed, and so on but don’t overload with these, and ask yourself if they are really necessary.

Bits of action tacked on to speech can also help. And you don’t have to name the character who is speaking after every line of dialogue. In some passages it is obvious but ensure the readers doesn’t lose track of who is speaking. Start each new character’s dialogue on a new line so as not to confuse the reader who is speaking (an exception is the translations of George Simeon’s Maigret novels). You can also add names into the dialogue.

Here is an example of the above points taken from the first page of my 1950 set mystery introducing Inspector Alun Ryga in DEATH IN THE COVE:

‘Inspector Ryga?’
‘Sergeant Jack Daniels. Like the whisky, I’m an acquired taste.’
Daniels’ handshake was firm and dry. Ryga returned the smile. ‘I bet you’ve said that a few times.’
‘Hundreds. I don’t mind. It helps to break the ice.’ Daniels opened the boot of the Wolseley and Ryga placed his holdall and the brown briefcase inside.
‘Where to, skipper? Sorry, sir.’
‘Yes. Not for long though, the war was over before I could do much damage. You?’
‘Prisoner of War, Germany.’
‘Oh. Sorry.’
‘Why? You didn’t start the war, did you?’
‘No, but . . . Sorry, sir, I didn’t mean . . .’
‘Forget it, and you can call me skipper if you prefer. Although your superintendent might not like that.’
‘He’s laid up with a broken ankle.’
‘I know.’ Ryga climbed in.
‘Of course, sorry. There I go again apologizing.’
‘Do I make you nervous?’ Ryga swivelled to study Daniels.
‘Not really, well, a bit, yes. Never had Scotland Yard down here on a case. In fact, I’ve never met a detective from Scotland Yard before and neither has anyone else around these parts.’

Not one single ‘said’ used there, the characters aren’t named on every line, and lots of action included, as well as information conveyed.

Death in the Cove by Pauline RowsonDEATH IN THE COVE is available in paperback, ebook, on Kindle and Kobo and as an audio book on Audible narrated by Jonathan Rhodes and produced by B7 Media.

Pauline Rowson is the author of twenty crime novels; fourteen featuring the flawed and ruged Portsmouth detective, Inspector Andy Horton; three in the mystery thriller series with undercover investigator Art Marvik; two standalone thrillers and the 1950 mystery novel DEATH IN THE COVE featuring Inspector Ryga.

Pauline's books are available from all booksellers and for loan in libraries.

JANUARY 13TH, 2020 @ 15:01:04 UTC

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